The very lovely Tuesday in Silhouette blog, which I just stumbled across via Alex in Leeds‘ excellent pages, is running a Russian Reading Month which I have decided to tag onto – partly because I happen to have just read “Conquered City” but mainly because I have an abiding love of Russian Literature. TIS has provided an interesting little meme re Russian Lit so here are my thoughts below.

What has your relationship with Russian literature been like thus far? What are your expectations for the following month – and perhaps your expectations towards the novel/writer you’ve chosen to read?

My first real encounter with Russia came when I was in my teens at Grammar School and we studied the Revolution in History lessons. I was fascinated by the period and started to explore further, and the next influence was the film of “Dr. Zhivago” which was re-running at our local cinema. I then began to read Solzhenitsyn, who was very much in the public eye when I was growing up, and was knocked out by “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. Luckily, my lovely old-fashioned school library was stuffed with glass panelled bookcases full of purple jacketed Russian classics so I was able to indulge.

I’ve continued to love and read the Russians ever since – everything from the classics to modern volumes like “Novel with Cocaine”. I was particularly taken with “Crime and Punishment” when I first read it, and also Gogol’s “Dead Souls” which I found amazingly funny. A more recent discovery was the wonderful Andrey Platonov who is unusual and strange and quite unique. I finally got round to reading “The Master and Margarita” a few years ago and was hooked, moving on to read everything by Bulgakov. I confess I still struggle with Tolstoy and there may be an issue with my attempts which I’ll get onto later.

My favourite Russian poet is Mayakovsky – he’s often dismissed as just a revolutionary hack, but this is so untrue – check out this heartbreaking final poem by him:

Past One O’Clock

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
to balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

I also love to read books about Russia and its history so I guess you could call me a real Slavophile!

The first book I read for the Russian month was “Conquered City” which I reviewed below. I had high hopes for this from what I had heard about it and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m currently re-reading Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” which I’m enjoying even more than the first time. I hope to read Nabokov’s Gogol biog which I have on order, and I also want to re-read “The Master and Margarita” – for reasons I’ll expand on below!

Thanks so much to TIS for prompting my re-engagement with Russian literature – one of my long-term loves!

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So – a slight digression here, on the subject of translation. After reading TIS and some other reviews of Bulgakov I picked up on the fact that some reviewers were commenting on problems and differences with translations. It seems that particular MAM has had a chequered history owing to the censorship and translations of various partial versions etc. There have been several attempts and the one I read was a 1997 translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I didn’t know a lot about them, except that their names seemed to be turning up on a lot of newer translations of Russian classics and they were working on a new version of “Dr. Zhivago”. A little more research revealed that they seem to polarize opinions dramatically, people either singing their praises or condemning their work. I was particularly intrigued to read one piece by a Russian writer saying that their translations were terrible. There were quite a few blogs doing comparisons of some passages from MAM and I have to say that I didn’t find the P/V sections compared that well. I dug about in my collection and found that I had a volume of P/V translated Gogol stories and also some older versions by different translators. On doing a quick comparison of some opening paragraphs, I definitely DO NOT like the P/V versions – they seemed flat, literal and dull. I asked Youngest Child to give me an impartial opinion and she said, without knowing anything about anything, that the P/V paragraphs had “no flair”. So I have now sent off for two other versions of MAM (thank goodness for Amazon penny books!!!!) and a highly regarded translation of “Dead Souls” – apparently, the new NYRB one which I have been coveting may not be the be-all and end-all of translations either 😦

This set me off thinking about the whole nature of translation generally. With one of my favourite writers, Italo Calvino, it’s fortunate that there have only been a few scholars involved. The bulk of his work during his lifetime was skilfully handled by William Weaver who gave the books a consistency and a voice. Tim Parks did some translating after Calvino’s death and since then, Martin McLaughlin has taken over the mantle of presenting Calvino’s works for the English-speaking world – all the time he is careful to respect what has been done before and improve on it discreetly when he can.

With the Russian authors there are numerous different translations. The first, much maligned, translator of many volumes was Constance Garnett. It is fashionable nowadays to condemn her work as inaccurate and faulty, but I think it’s too easy to criticise. She was trying to present huge numbers of long works in a format that the English-speaking reader could deal with in the early 20th century and as a one-woman translating machine she did very well. However, I pulled out a number of my Russian novels last night and found there was a wide array of translators represented. Many of my older Penguin Classics were dealt with by David Magarshack and David Duff, and I never had any issues with reading them although Magarshack in particular gets bad press nowadays. But looking through my more recent volumes, I realised that there were two translators whose skills I really trust. The first is Robert Chandler, who is probably best known for bringing Platonov to us in English but has also produced an exemplary collection, “Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida”. To translate a writer as complex and subtle as Platonov takes real talent and love of the language, and Chandler has certainly served literature well. The other scholar, who seems to have been beavering away quietly in the background, is Hugh Aplin. Aplin has produced numerous translations for Hesperus Press of Chekhov, Lermontov and Turgenev – and is the name behind my current NFU as mentioned above. His work is elegant and consistently readable – there is no hype or fuss, just well presented and enjoyable volumes. Well done gentlemen!

Anyway, this exercise has made me realise that I need to think more about the translated literature I’m reading. This subject surfaced a little while back when I was considering Proust, and the advice I’ve come across then and now is to compare as many different versions as you can and choose the one you respond to best. So I think I shall try to ignore hype and publicity claims, and let my reading mojo respond to the prose!